The whole story of retired Cardinal Theodore "Uncle Ted" McCarrick has reached the stage where reporters, as well as concerned readers, simply have to ride the waves of coverage and wait to connect the hellish dots. The victims are starting to tell their stories.
But let's pause to note a significant change in the shape of the clergy abuse story that has haunted Catholic leaders in America (and elsewhere) since the mid-1980s.
Reporters who have covered this story for decades -- such as my colleague Julia Duin -- have always known that this was a tragedy on three levels, in terms of law, science and even moral theology. But it's hard to tell the bigger story, when the victims remain silent, often because of pressure from parents and clergy.
Level I: Pedophilia -- The sexual abuse of prepubescent children. These cases have received the most news coverage.
Level II: Ephebophilia -- The widespreed sexual abuse of under-aged children and teens.
Level III: The sexual harassment and abuse of adults, often young seminarians.
A bombshell report from The New York Times -- "He Preyed on Men Who Wanted to Be Priests. Then He Became a Cardinal" -- opened the floodgates, in terms of urgent discussions of sins and crimes at Level III.
Now the Times team is back with a report that, in the words of Rocco Palmo of the Whispers in the Loggia website, is "a nuclear bomb." The Times headline: "Man Says Cardinal McCarrick, His ‘Uncle Ted,’ Sexually Abused Him for Years."
With a devastating three-word tweet -- "Millstone, neck, sea" -- columnist Ross Douthat of the Times (a pro-Catechism Catholic) has pointed readers to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 18, verse 6:
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.
This quote is from one of the DC cardinal's "Thinking of You" columns, which appeared on Feb. 28, 2002 in the Catholic Standard:
There are certain things you don’t want to write about. They are too sad or too sordid or so strange that they give you an uncomfortable feeling right in the pit of your stomach. One of these is pedophilia or child abuse. It seems that so many people are writing about this topic in the media these days that another column would be unnecessary, but the letters I get from some of you in my Archdiocesan family indicate that there are enough folks who would want me to talk about it too.
What shall I say? A few weeks ago I was on a live news program on TV and the second question I got was about child abuse. The question caught me by surprise since I was supposed to be discussing another topic, but it did give me a chance to say what I felt from my heart. Hurting a child or a young person through sexual or physical abuse is always despicable and to be condemned whoever the offender is, but when the perpetrator is someone who is trusted by the child because of his role or his profession, the wrong that is done is multiplied and is all the more horrendous. My heart breaks at the suffering this causes the children and their families. ...
As he wrote that, was McCarrick thinking, at least in part, of "James"?
I am referring to the crucial on-the-record source for the astonishing new Times report, focusing on how he was groomed to be -- as a teen and young man -- a sexual toy for his family's beloved "Uncle Teddy." Here is the overture:
James was 11 years old when Father Theodore E. McCarrick came into his bedroom in Northern New Jersey, looking for the bathroom. Father McCarrick, then 39 and a rising star in the Roman Catholic church, was a close family friend, whom James and his six siblings called Uncle Teddy. James was changing out of his bathing suit to get ready for dinner.
“He said, turn around,” James, who is now 60, recalled in an interview last week. “And I really don’t want to, because I don’t want to show anybody anything.” But he did, he said, and was shocked when Father McCarrick dropped his pants, too. “See, we are the same,” James said he told him. “It’s O.K., we are the same.”
It was the beginning of a sexually abusive relationship that would last nearly 20 years, James said in the interview, the first time he has spoken publicly about the trauma. He asked that his last name be withheld to protect a sibling.
Yes, the last name was withheld -- but not a wave of details that have, when possible, been confirmed with others close to James.
Is a civil suit still possible, years later? That depends on what happens with the lawyers and judges. Here is another crucial passage from this latest Times report, which follows an earlier substantiated allegation (Level II: Ephebophilia) that McCarrick had abused a 16-year-old altar boy in 1971.
... James’ allegations -- that he was repeatedly sexually abused as a minor -- are the most explosive yet to be leveled against the cardinal, who is now 88 and living in seclusion in the Washington, D.C., area. On Monday, James filed a police report detailing his accusations against the cardinal with the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office in Virginia, where he lives.
Cardinal McCarrick, through a spokeswoman, Susan Gibbs, said on Wednesday that he had not been notified of the accusation, so he could not respond. But she said he was committed to following the process the church has put in place for abuse allegations.
James said he had tried to tell his father that he was being abused when he was 15 or 16. But Father McCarrick was so beloved by his family, he said, and considered so holy, that the idea was unfathomable.
So where does this story go now?
Well, to some degree, the U.S. Catholic Bishops have a legal and pastoral plan in place -- the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" -- that addresses what I have described as the crisis at levels I and II.
But what about the sexual harassment of seminarians and young priests directly under the authority of bishops who are either part of the system of abuse or, for some reason, have chosen to keep silent about it? Once again, here is Palmo:
... In terms of policy, a buried comment from Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark delivered the biggest impact.
A Francis confidant and favorite of McCarrick's who was sent to New Jersey's top post at the latter's behest, Tobin said in a statement that he would "discuss this tragedy with the leadership of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in order to articulate standards that will assure high standards of respect by bishops, priests and deacons for all adults."
In as many words, that means another "Charter," at least to some extent. ...
A formal "Charter" to help protect seminarians and young priests?
Will journalists be allowed to cover USCCB debates on that topic? The subject has for decades been discussed in closed, "executive" sessions, often linked to studies of the mental and emotional health of seminarians.
Meanwhile, more and more priests and former priests are beginning to speak out.
I'll end, for now, with this material from a letter to blogger Matt C. Abbott at the Renew America website. This is from a former priest, someone who is known to Abbott. I was going to run a chunk of this letter as a weekend "think piece," but, clearly, it is relevant right now:
Years back, I wrote to you to confirm that I was a seminarian at Mount Saint Mary's Seminary and later a priest for the Archdiocese of Newark under Theodore McCarrick. I revealed to you my knowledge of McCarrick sleeping with seminarians, many of whom I knew personally. I had been a firefighter for the City of Linden, New Jersey prior to entering the seminary. It was a great job that I loved, but I decided to leave because I loved the Church and wanted to serve God and His people. Serving God's people was very rewarding; serving the Church, not so much.
The things I witnessed in the seminary and as a priest ultimately led me to leave the priesthood after five years. ... I was forced out because I did not fit the mold of a Newark diocesan priest. It was difficult enough to live a celibate life, but knowing that my 'brothers in Christ' were not following the Church's teachings caused me great strife and spiritual pain.
As I read the recent New York Times article in which Rob Ciolek was interviewed, it brought back many painful memories of watching Rob and other seminarians from the Diocese of Metuchen suffer under the abuse of 'Uncle Ted.' I recall that my spiritual director at the Mount also directed the very seminarians whom McCarrick would take to his shore house. I privately loathed these young men for what they were engaging in. Today, I feel nothing but empathy and sorrow for these men. What were they to do? Our ordinations were in the hands of a predator! ...
Matt, I loved being a priest. I loved serving God's people. I was a very hardworking and dedicated priest who worked with children and young families. When the clergy scandals hit the media in the early 1990s, McCarrick sent all of his priests a letter informing us that if we were accused of sexual misconduct, we would be responsible for our legal representation.
That was the last straw for me.
Stay tuned. Obviously. At some point, will Washington, D.C., media start covering these developments?